(Last Updated On: October 22, 2018)

Bluetooth sound takes a leap for the better with the amazing connectivity options, unparalleled codec support and value-for-money pricing of the BTR3.

Magic. Sorcery. Bluetooth. Man always feared what they cannot comprehend, and delivering invisible rays of music to my ears is as foreign as it gets. So what’s stopping an evil genius from misusing these invisible rays to deliver death? Wait, a microwave you say? For cooking, no one thought about killing? Just me then? Hmm!

While my faith in humanity is restored, I like the idea of a wired audio signal delivered via good conductors, like expensive silver wires, because then I know the sound ain’t going anywhere else. Wireless audio paraphernalia was for tech nuts and exercise nuts. But as more armchair audiophiles grow heavier and need to shed some pounds, well, necessity is the mother of great audio quality.

Review: FiiO BTR3 - The Harmonious Threads We Weave

FiiO BTR3

“The BTR3 is incredibly hard to fault for what it does: providing a strong, rarely-interrupted signal for your IEMs to enjoy on-the-go, while sounding simply superb”

Pros:

  • »Beautiful design and robust build quality
  • »Peerless audio codec coverage
  • »Quick pairing and excellent signal strength
  • »Good battery life
  • »Powerful headphone amplifier
  • »Accessible, musical tuning
  • »Pitch black background
  • »Assortment of secondary functions

Cons:

  • »Simplistic packaging and accessory set
  • »Painful firmware update process
  • »Subbass and upper treble extension
  • »Intimate soundstage

A Portable Mindset

Flagship digital audio players (DAPs) and smartphones are getting larger and heavier, burdening pockets until a solution is found. Enter the FiiO BTR3, a Bluetooth receiver and amplifier, now in its third iteration (I must have fallen asleep for the first two). At 25g and just the size of a thumb, it turns your portable setup into a lightweight solution, so you carry just the BTR3 and earphones and stay active while your DAP/smartphone rests nearby.

The BTR3 also carries a slew of secondary functions. It receives calls with Qualcomm’s cVc noise cancellation technology. It converts car and computer speakers to Bluetooth receivers, playing music wirelessly from your smartphone or Bluetooth-enabled DAP. It can also be used as an external DAC (digital-to-analog converter) for your laptop or computer, instantly improving sound quality via its dedicated AK4376A DAC chip.

Life is all rainbows and fairies with Bluetooth!
Life is all rainbows and fairies with Bluetooth!

High Fidelity

The best part is, sound quality for Bluetooth audio is at its unquestionable peak as of now. The BTR3 supports the widest range of wireless audio codecs, from the vanilla SBC, to CD-quality aptX, to the mighty high-resolution audio-capable LDAC. We used to be satisfied if a Bluetooth setup produces a contiguous sound that doesn’t break up, and now at long last, we have fidelity!

The BTR3 retails for USD79.99 and is currently available through FiiO’s official site, Amazon and AliExpress. Embrace the future! Go wireless or end up like the Last Jedi! Why send a projection of your own body and soul to fight battles when remote-controlled robots can do the same? Obviously Luke wasn’t friends with Tony Stark.

Equipment Used:

  • FiiO BTR3
  • Samsung Galaxy S9
  • Sony WM1A “K” Modded
  • FiiO FH5
  • Advanced AcousticWerkes W900
  • Empire Ears Legend X
  • Sennheiser HD800S

Albums Listened:

  • Amber Rubarth – Sessions from the 17th Ward
  • Fleetwood Mac – Rumours
  • John Mayer – Continuum
  • Lorde – Pure Heroine
  • Michael Jackson – The Essential
  • The Police – Synchronicity
  • Dozens of 320kbps MP3s from my smartphone

Packaging and Accessories

I hate to use a millennial term because it’s daylight theft and makes me sound like an old geezer, but the packaging of the BTR3 is stupendously basic. It’s a cardboard box with a photo of the BTR3 printed on top. Open it up and you get the BTR3, lanyard, USB to USB-C cable for charging or the external DAC function, warranty and a quickstart guide.

Review: FiiO BTR3 - The Harmonious Threads We Weave
Trust me, it gets better, or off with me head!

It wastes no time in telling you to throw away the box and start listening. Just don’t throw away the quickstart guide, it was my bible for the last few weeks while playing with this thing. You can wear the BTR3 two ways, either with the shirt clip or with the lanyard. Being a person of advanced age and misplacing things everywhere, I much prefer the lanyard. Makes me look like a coach too, completing the geezer look.

Design and Build Quality

The monolithic shape of the BTR3 is timeless and honestly, critic-proof. Dressed in a glossy jet black, with a sand-blasted shirt clip, FiiO logos front, and back, the design is classy and practical, delivering on all fronts. If you get fingerprint smudges on the glass surface of the BTR3, it’s your own fault. Glossy is as glossy does.

I’ve always been confused by the term “smashing”. It’s a compliment but at the same time, it might incite violence. When I say the BTR3’s build quality is smashingly good, please don’t find a hard surface to smash it on. Just take my word for it. The BTR3’s metal and glass structure is solidly built despite its feather-light weight and inspires beaming confidence.

Pairing and Connectivity

With quickstart guide (in 200 languages) in hand, you can connect and listen in no time. Turning the BTR3 on for the first time will automatically enter pairing mode (FiiO logo flashes blue and red). Every time you turn the BTR3 on it will automatically pair with the last used device. To pair with another device subsequently, just press the ‘A’ button for 5 seconds to enter pairing mode at any time.

A Quickie How-to

For the uninitiated, the final setup looks like this.

Fit for a queen!
Fit for a queen!

Audio source (phone/DAP) > paired wirelessly with Bluetooth > FiiO BTR3 > cable > transducer (IEM/headphones/speakers)

Granted, this is not a fully wireless setup. But if you get creative, the BTR3 to transducer chain can be made as lightweight as possible. For example, a short IEM cable with the BTR3 clipped to your collar. Or for headphones, a tiny cable to connect to the BTR3 so you can clip it on your cap. You gotta be imaginative. But if you’re old school like this geezer, the setup looks like the one above.

To pair, make sure BTR3 is in pairing mode (flashing red/blue) while your source’s Bluetooth is turned on. The BTR3 will appear on your source as, well, FiiO BTR3. No passwords, nothing. Click and pair and get listening. While music is playing the FiiO logo flashes according to the color of the codec. If you’re using Android Oreo and above chances are its LDAC with the logo flashing white. Keep it that way yeah?

In actual fact your phone can be up to 20 feet away, not this close!
In actual fact your phone can be up to 20 feet away, not this close!

Both my sources, the Galaxy S9 and Sony WM1A, paired with the BTR3 with the minimum of fuss. The quick pairing is thanks to the Qualcomm CR8675 Bluetooth 4.2 chip. If Bluetooth pairing proves too slow for your speed demon tendencies, NFC will do the trick. Took literally one second for the BTR3 to pair with my Sony this way. Breathless yet?

Doing Chores for Science

Fast pairing isn’t worth a cent if the signal drops at the slightest provocation. To test the signal strength I did some chores while my phone sits in the middle of the house. You’re welcome, wifey. While toiling around the toilets, the signal remained clear and uninterrupted at 20 feet if separated by one or two walls, and a jaw-dropping 40 feet if maintaining line of sight with the BTR3. Any longer, I’d have to get a new house.

The obligatory mood piece to show we're serious.
The obligatory mood piece to show we’re serious.

Functionality and Battery Life

Let’s get our hands dirty with the BTR3’s primary function. The Qualcomm chip is capable of transmitting 24 yummy bits of audio information. It has the widest audio codec support known to man. When they say the whole gamut of codecs are covered, they mean it. AAC, SBC, aptX, aptX Low Latency, aptX HD, LDAC, and LHDC. Every. Single. One.

The BTR3 will display the codec used via colour-coding of the front FiiO logo. You can choose audio output prioritising performance (SBC/blue/boo), sound quality (LDAC/white/yay) or somewhere in between (aptX/pink/meh). Again, the codec support is kind of a big deal. This being an audio enthusiasts’ hideout, I accept nothing but the FiiO logo flashing the reassuring LDAC white, naturally.

Audio Heavyweight

Using the BTR3 is a joy. Not lugging the heavy smartphone or DAP around while I listen to hi-res music has been a hitherto unknown pleasure. The BTR3 has enough juice for a rip-roaring party for one, with all my in-ear monitors (IEMs) tested sounding sufficiently good. Best of all, the noise floor is astoundingly low with no hiss detected with them.

Just for kicks, although the BTR3 is designed to drive headphones up to 100Ω, I went ahead and tried the Sennheiser HD800S (rated at 300Ω), because YOLO. To my surprise, the BTR3 could power them below maximum volume with juice to spare! While the BTR3 won’t fulfill the 800S’ full potential (the tone was good but the soundstage awfully tiny), nice to know it has some driving muscle. Now flex.

Multi-Armed Multitasker

Rounding out the other functions, answering calls with the BTR3 is excellent with crystal-clear vocals. The external DAC function for laptops is foolproof, just plug and play (heh) without driver installation. Using the BTR3 as a receiver for ancient transducers worked for my computer speakers and TV, with a 3.5mm.to 3.5mm audio cable (not provided though).

Sadly, I couldn’t do the same with my car as the stereo system doesn’t have a 3.5mm socket. Unless, you know, someone could sponsor a new car? I tried. As a bonus, streaming videos produce no lag between video and audio. Besides telemarketers (who deserve a class all on their own), there is nothing more irritating than out-of-sync audio, so BTR3 is safe here.

Energy Bar

As for battery life, the BTR3 is power-packed, like a calorie-filled energy bar. It’s a teensy-weensy 300mAh battery but allowed LDAC playback for a full workday. That’s 9 hours with some leftover power for the ride home. Honestly, I didn’t try the other codecs because LDAC or bust. I bet AAC or SBC can go more than 10 hours as advertised, but would you want to listen to worse stuff, for longer?!

Before we go any further, I have to say that updating the firmware is a pain in the gonads. First up, finding the file itself involved Googling. Clicking FiiO’s firmware download section leads to its forums, so imagine the bitter pill of searching thread by thread. Lastly, take a look at the mind-boggling instructions here. The BTR3’s display is off throughout the update and involves lots of praying. I was successful in my third attempt, after much cussing, not praying.

Invisible wearer taking the BTR3 out for a spin.
Invisible wearer taking the BTR3 out for a spin.

Sound Quality

The BTR3 has a dedicated AK4376A DAC with headphone amplifier to handle all audio output and flex audio muscle. For fear of describing the transducers’ sound instead of the BTR3’s and tarnishing my reputation forever, I tried several IEMs and cans with the BTR3 and looked for similarities to gauge its overall signature.

I don’t think burn-in applies here, so I skipped it. You can burn-in with a microwave if it suits you. Critical listening was done out of the box for instant fun and gratification. The main rig for review is Samsung Galaxy S9 > BTR3 > transducer of choice. I tried the BTR3 with the FiiO FH5, Empire Ears Legend X, AAW W900 and just because I can, the Sennheiser HD800S. I heard the BTR3 gasp at the last one.

Overall Sound Signature

The BTR3 has an overall warm presentation, with an emphasis on detail. It sounds a bit contradictory, like ice cream and broccoli, but bear with me. The bass is elevated for a warm, enveloping feel, while notes are meaty and pronounced. You won’t find a thin, nimble response here. At the same time, note texture is easily heard, especially at note decay, as the BTR3 lays out a wealth of information before fading into a jet-black background.

Another thing of note, the BTR3 has fun in mind. Even with its emphasis on detail, the signature is lively and natural. A vibrant, people-pleaser signature. It’s hard to dislike it unless you compare the BTR3 with a high-end DAP, which in all fairness, is unfair. The BTR3 provides baby steps to the wireless lifestyle for hard-headed, snot-nosed audiophiles like me. But does it succeed? Let’s dissect the sound.

Bass

The mighty bass anchors the signature down and provides a firm base to expand the sound on, like a fulcrum. The mids and treble teeters and totters but doesn’t wander far, thanks to the steady foundation built upon the bass. It’s diligent, dependable and steady, like the leader of a ship. That’s how leadership is forged, captain.

Irish Stout

The bass is mildly enhanced especially in the midbass region, giving off warmth and body. It’s well-rounded and full of character, like a proper Irish stout. Notes hit with authority and aplomb. And like the delicate foam on top, note decay gives off a smooth, gentle finish, never offensive, rounding off a satisfying bass. I need a drinky.

Of course, while everything is merry and jaunty from midbass to upper bass, I would have preferred more subbass extension and rumble, to really show them who’s boss. But from the wireless, Bluetoothy side of things, this is probably the best sound I’ve listened to yet. Drink up your stout, boy.

Also doubles as a bookmark.
Also doubles as a bookmark.

Mids

Ascending to the mids, the notes are clear and articulate, free from the clutches of the bountiful bass. Note detail is milked to the maximum here. From note attack to decay, you hear with utmost clarity the texture and timbre of each note, lovingly detailed, yet flowing seamlessly into one another. It’s a musicality to fall head-first into, and get giddy with excitement about.

Puppy Tidal Wave!

Describing the tone of the mids, while detail and transparency is at a good level, they are not neutral or flat-tuned. Rather, notes have a coloured, sweet and euphonic finish, sounding natural and lively. Like Frampton, music comes alive! Instruments and vocals alike, the tuning highlights all that is good about music. Ever-so-slightly warm, but engaging and addicting almost to a personal level. Like a tidal wave of puppies.

I’ve always maintained that, for my sources, I like the tone to remain as neutral as possible, and let the transducers weave their magic with signatures, colourations and unicorn dust. But here, the mids tuning has me won over, with my IEMs and cans jiving and chiming with it, and changing for the better.

Treble

As the last puppy tails off into the sunset, the treble inherits some of its playfulness and liveliness. The lower and mid-treble display good amounts of detail and transparency, while verging on the safe side of brightness. I’ve listened to many FiiO products and most of them favor a smooth, sibilance-free treble that plays well with most listeners.

Bells and Whistles

Once again, like the mids, note texture and timbre are given a first-class treatment. Cymbals sound realistic and no-nonsense, without added bells or whistles. Bells and whistles sound natural as well, with a melodious ringing free of tizziness and that nails-to-chalkboard sensation which makes you skip to the next track.

The highest registers are muted. I would have liked more treble air to flow freely, weaving its way in and out of the signature. It’s a personal preference really, but as it is, the BTR3 treble has just enough detail, counterbalanced with equal smoothness. Notes have just the right thickness, contrasted with a dollop of crunch and crisp. A good tuning beats end-to-end extension anyday.

Soundstage and Imaging

Remember the uh, fulcrumatic bass? The anchor of the signature and keeper of the music, he can get quite attached to things. The mids and treble are totally fine with this (Stockholm syndrome) and deliver the sound as a united whole. The soundstage, however, feels caged in, and stutters and stammers, itching to be let loose.

I Hope You Like Intimacy

The stage size is intimate at best. The elements of music never leave the perimeter of your head, although this can be transducer-dependent. Pair the BTR3 with an IEM known for a big soundstage and you can push the dimensions outward by a little. Most times, however, you have to accept the average stage width, and barely-there depth and height.

It’s not all doom and gloom as I make it out to be. From a value standpoint, at USD79.99, barely any DAP or IEM would be able to produce a holographic, wide-open soundstage. It’s just generally accepted that at this price range, tonality and signature is prioritized over staging and imaging. Having said that, the left to right positional cues are rather good, aided by the vast black background. Just don’t expect sounds to pop out of your head.

Crouching tiger hidden say aaaahhhh!
Crouching tiger hidden say aaaahhhh!

Comparisons

Samsung Galaxy S9

I must apologize. This audiofool isn’t a techie at heart, and has no other Bluetooth receiver to compare with. Comparing it with a similar-priced DAP seems unfair, since I already have a preconceived bias that wired systems whups wireless. So I bring you the Galaxy S9 audio output as a comparison, while providing one answer to the question, “Does adding an external DAC improve sound quality?

Yes

The Galaxy S9 is one of this year’s premier flagship phones, meaning it is the master of all trades and jack of none. If we look at spec sheets alone, everything is peachy and perfect, from top to bottom. The audio quality is likewise, a reliable performer. As one of the top performers for smartphone sound quality, the signature is neutral and clear, but almost to the point of sterility.

The BTR3 bass is meatier with more character, leaving the S9’s thinnish bass behind. S9’s mids bring precise notes, with plenty of detail and articulation, but BTR3’s lovely coloured mids sound more euphonic and natural. BTR3’s beautifully-textured treble make the S9’s sound grainy and thin in comparison. Soundstage size is similar, but BTR3’s impressive black background gives better imaging cues than S9. As an add-on to improve sound, the BTR3 proves its worth.

Final Words

At some point in life, you begin to assess your wants and needs. Bluetooth audio is for me, something I do not indulge in day in, day out, as opposed to say, quality brunches. Be that as it may, the entry-level price point and widespread high-resolution LDAC support from Android Oreo, might finally mean that the time to adopt Bluetooth is now.

The BTR3 is incredibly hard to fault for what it does: providing a strong, rarely-interrupted signal for your IEMs to enjoy on-the-go, while sounding simply superb. The sound quality rivals, even better top phones; and is within touching distance of wired portable systems. Consider also the host of secondary functions that are only limited by your imagination. The future might have already arrived, so get on board and have fun.